How can this high school persecute the victim?

April 3, 2018

Alex Moyle and Zavi Katzvik report from California on a struggle by high school students to hold administrators accountable for punishing a sexual assault survivor.

HUNDREDS OF students at McClatchy High School in Sacramento, California, walked out of class March 21 in protest of the school administration's callous and cruel mishandling of a reported gang rape.

In the same city where anti-racist protests are taking place continually over the latest police murder of an unarmed African American man, students are exposing school authorities who act with the same impunity as police--not only covering up for sexual assaults, but persecuting and punishing the victims.

The survivor of the assault came forward to state that she was drugged and repeatedly raped at an off-campus party in 2016. Upon reporting her attackers, she was asked to leave for the remainder of the semester--while her assailants were permitted to finish the term at McClatchy undisciplined.

According to students, this kind of treatment of sexual harassment and assault is not uncommon for the Sacramento school's administrators.

"We are protesting the mishandling and the inaction on [all] sexual assault cases, because the one that popped up in the Sac Bee is not the only one," McClatchy senior Brenna Leigh Nancarrow told reporters. "We are tired of administrators telling us, 'Oh, it was a mistake' and 'You were leading him on' or things like that. We are taking a stand and saying no more."

Students stage a walkout against sexual assault at McClatchy High School in Sacramento
Students stage a walkout against sexual assault at McClatchy High School in Sacramento (Renée C. Byer | Sacramento Bee)

The survivor, now 19 and a high school graduate, has filed a suit against the school district for misconduct on the part of the administration and a school resources officer. She has reported that the district never advised her of her civil rights, nor her right to press charges against her assailants.

After she reported the incident, the student and two of her family members were escorted off campus and told that she should not return to school until the following semester. The family was told that other students were talking about the incident, and that the teen's presence was "distracting," according to the lawsuit.

"The family also complained that school administrators didn't keep their promise to freeze her grades, resulting in her having to go to each of her teachers to tell her story and plead her case," reports the Sacramento Bee. "She ultimately made up some classes in summer school."

In the lawsuit, the survivor further states that the school retaliated against her, and that the school resources officer, a Sacramento Police Officer serving on the campus, asked her if she was a virgin.

The former student's attorney, Brenda Adams, stated, "[T]hey engaged in a victim-blaming course of conduct. One of the following questions was 'Do you really feel that you were raped?' That was a question the officer asked her."

The Sacramento police officer, Joe Brown, is no longer a school resource officer at McClatchy High School, though he is still a Sacramento police officer, according to district spokeswoman Maria Lopez.

Sacramento Police Department spokesperson Eddie Macaulay claimed that the sexual assault was investigated, but no arrests were made. The school district has yet to comment, due to the pending litigation.

Equal Rights Advocates attorney Maha H.M. Ibrahim wrote in a letter to the district that administrators had abdicated legal duties by allowing the investigation to be handled by a school resource officer with no training on Title IX or sexual harassment or assault policies.

THREE DAYS after the initial story was published by the Sacramento Bee, outraged students staged a walkout to demand that the school administration meet with them to change the school's policy on sexual harassment and assault.

The students demanded that the administration carry out transparent investigations of sexual harassment, keep victims informed of their rights, adhere to state harassment laws and provide better training and guidelines for dealing with harassment.

Sacramento City Unified spokesperson Alex Barrios's assertion that these demands were already met by district policies rang hollow in the face of the passionate testimony of McClatchy students at the walkout.

In the spirit of the #MeToo movement, students used the walkout to create space for survivors to share their stories. Over the course of three hours in rainy weather, more than 40 students took turns speaking over the bullhorn to their peers. They expressed outrage over the case and also at their own experiences of being harassed on campus and the administration's failure to effectively respond.

McClatchy student Riley Burke told the crowd:

We at CKM have had enough of an administration and district that has continued to mishandle cases of sexual assault and harassment. An administration and district that has failed to protect the basic rights of survivors. When the survivor of a gang rape perpetrated by three students that attend McClatchy attempted to get help, she was discredited, in essence disbelieved, sent home for the semester, discouraged by our administration from pressing charges while her attackers still walked the halls of our school--just as they still do today.

Another protester told the crowd about a group of men habitually making inappropriate comments and gestures at students at the light rail station. She asserted that she complained to the administrators about these occurrences, but they brushed her off.

Another activist and high school senior described a situation a friend had shared anonymously. As the Bee reported: "She said a boy she dated her freshman year became so violent that she had to get a restraining order. School officials promised he wouldn't be allowed on campus, but he showed up to sporting events and eventually to a dance. He hit her in the face while swinging at her male friend."

Despite the hours of passionate testimony by the student body speaking to a systemic problem in the district, Barrios steadfastly denied the allegations, saying they don't "reflect our culture here in the Sacramento Unified School District or McClatchy High School."

Rather than acknowledge their own responsibility, school district officials turned the blame around. Several teachers were questioned following the walkout to determine if any were involved in planning or facilitating the protest.

McClatchy senior Chrysanthe Vidal asserted that it was McClatchy students themselves who planned the action. "It's kind of insulting that the district thinks we can't plan this by ourselves," Vidal said.

IT HAS been a politically tumultuous couple of months at McClatchy High School.

The walkout over sexual assault happened one week after McClatchy students participated in nationwide student protests of gun violence, an issue that struck close to home for students after a shooting threat at McClatchy High circulated on social media following the massacre in Parkland, Florida.

McClatchy Junior Maya Steinhart addressed the student body at the school-sanctioned demonstration, stating, "Students every day come to get an education, but instead are faced with threats and fear of violence on their campus. Today, we make the demand that that fear ends."

In February, outraged McClatchy students demanded that the administration provide answers for how a disgustingly racist science project created by a classmate--justifying the lack of diversity in the school's elite Humanities and International Studies Program (HISP) by asserting that Black and Latino students had low IQs--was not only allowed, but publicly displayed.

Chrysanthe Vidal and other students who were later involved in planning the subsequent walkouts spoke out against the project to the press, and stated that the student who created it had a history of racist remarks. Vidal, who is one of 12 Black students in the HISP program, confirmed that an undercurrent of racism exists at McClatchy.

These recent experiences of McClatchy High students illustrate the terrible extent to which America's youth are confronted with sexual violence, gun violence and racism. But their responses show their refusal to accept such a status quo.

In a short span of time, McClatchy High students have learned how to mobilize and to put into action the power of protest to express their outrage and to use the front steps of their school as a platform to amplify their voices. They are seeking to not only be heard but to enact concrete change.

As one McClatchy High activist at the walkout stated "We aren't just here for talk. If they aren't going to take our demands we are going to the district. If the district doesn't take our demands we are going to take them to court...There are too many girls at our school, boys too, that are tired of being sexually harassed."

Further Reading

From the archives